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'I'm not closing the door and hopefully Munster wouldn't close the door on me because it's my home'

Simon Zebo yesterday spoke to the media for the first time since announcing his decision to leave Munster at the end of the season.

THE MONEY MAN, comes a cry from the back of the room as Simon Zebo settles into the hotseat under the glare of the media lights. It could well have been Billy Holland, and if not certainly another member of the Munster staff.

Simon Zebo Zebo shares a joke with the media during yesterday's press conference at UL. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

There’s a never a dull moment when Zebo is involved. He marks his entry into the press conference room at the province’s University of Limerick headquarters by inadvertently letting the door bang, and Holland’s train of thought in front of the cameras is quickly lost.

“You can ask Zeebs about the breakdown now, he’s an expert,” the second row laughs.

How they’re going to miss him around this place — both on and off the field. Not many players are irreplaceable, but then again not many players are the freewheeling, ever-smiling Simon Zebo. Carefree chaos seems to follow him around.

“Loving life,” says his Twitter bio.

He can’t keep the smile off his face at the moment, but speaking for the first time about his decision to reject an improved Munster contract to sign for a Top 14 club — believed to be Racing 92, but as-of-yet not confirmed — brings a growing realisation that he’s only got a few months left here.

It’s beginning to sink in. Each game one closer to his last in the red, each day one closer to his last as a Munster player.

“It’ll be tough watching the boys but…yeah I’m not looking forward to it,” he admits. “It is tough to miss out on Munster.”

The thought of leaving this place — his home — has Zebo moving a little more uncomfortably in his chair. The joking has stopped. It’ll be over before he knows it. You get the sense he already misses it and he hasn’t packed up his things yet.

“I knew the decision was coming up and I just had to make a decision for me and what I consider is best for me and my family,” he explains.

“I could have waited until I was 31 or 32 and be a sheep like 90% of all the players who decide to go then but I wanted to try it when I’m in my prime and give it my best shot. I’m true to myself and I know who I am so I do things my way and I’m not shy about doing that.”

Zebo had remained on a provincial contract, rather than a national one, and although Munster had been assisted by the IRFU at the negotiating table, once the French club brought their considerable financial muscle to the bidding war, there was only going to be one outcome.

Simon Zebo celebrates after the game Once a red, always a red? Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

There was more to it than money. It played its part, of course it did. But Zebo, whose father is a Martinique-born French athlete, has never been shy in expressing his desire to one day play abroad.

He explains: “It’s something I always wanted to do and the right opportunity at the right time came up. I’m still young enough, I could always hopefully one day… if the door isn’t fully closed on me, I’d still love to be a part of Munster Rugby in the future, but trying out the Top 14 is always something I wanted to do.”

Although unable to divulge the length of contract he has signed with his future employers, Zebo did admit he hopes to return to Munster one day.

“Absolutely not, Munster is my home,” he replied, when asked if he was completely shutting the door behind him.

“In my eyes, it’s one of the best places in the world to play rugby. I’ve been blessed and very grateful to be given the opportunity to represent Munster for the past few years. This is a step I’ve wanted to take in my life, but definitely not closing the door and hopefully, Munster wouldn’t close the door on me either because it’s my home.

“Munster have been incredible, they have been very good to me in understanding my reasons, from my dealings with Rassie [Erasmus], Garrett [Fitzgerald, Munster CEO], they have just been fantastic to me.”

There’s a hint of sentimentality in his voice. Of course there is. Cork-born, Munster-bred. 129 caps, 58 tries. You don’t leave this place lightly, but now the decision has been made he wants to make the most of the remaining months.

“It just makes me enjoy it that bit more,” he says. “I am really, really trying to enjoy it as much as I can. I remember chatting to ROG a few years ago, slagging him, saying he was really old and he was laughing at me, giving me the old wink and the nod, saying ‘it will be gone before you know it’.

“It was only when I made my decision that I realised how fast the years had gone by. I wanted to make this season one of my most memorable and enjoyable seasons I have ever had. Winning something would be the icing on the cake.

“We want to win three trophies here, so that is the goal, we want to be in a position like we were last year, where we were in contention, playing in finals and semi-finals is the goal and hopefully if we get to that stage of the season, then we can learn from our mistakes last year.”

It helps Zebo is playing some of the best rugby of his career; uninhibited, unshackled and unleashed. Doing his own thing, dancing to his own tune. Savouring every minute of it. Munster fans basking in it.

Simon Zebo celebrates scoring a try Zebo celebrates his try with a dance. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

It was his vision, and ingenuity, behind Munster’s second try on Saturday. Keatley executed the kick to perfection, Zebo on hand to finish with a dance and a dab. A genuine match-winner. A showboater, but flair and steel come in equal measure.

“I kind of lost myself for a few minutes but I was just enjoying it. I was dancing with my kids all week so I told my son if I scored a try then I was going to do a dance.”

This is no long goodbye, though. The second half of the season won’t become a glorified lap-of-honour. Zebo always seems to be the centre of attention, but he doesn’t want to be a distraction. As he stresses, there are trophies to be won before any thoughts can turn to Parisian life.

“I tried to dull it down as much as possible because we’ve got trophies to focus on winning and my situation shouldn’t hinder that,” he says of the moment he informed the dressing room of his decision. Others are in the same boat now.

Munster swatted the sideshow of contract talk aside on Saturday by dispatching Leicester Tigers, but the futures of key players — namely Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander — are up in the air. They may well follow Zebo out the door.

At 27, his decision to leave Munster also means he’s sacrificing the chance to play in the 2019 World Cup with Ireland. A matter of days after the announcement, he was frozen out by Joe Schmidt.

“You know there’s a risk I suppose. It’s up to the coaches then if they want to select a player then they can select a player. If they don’t and don’t feel the need then that’s their call. It’s nothing really to do with me, if I’m playing good rugby and playing with Munster then I see myself in contention.”

He didn’t see much of the November internationals — “I was okay, I was kept busy with my kids” — but still harbours hope of adding to his 35 caps.

“Joe said the door wasn’t closed so if he’s telling the truth and I’m playing well in the Six Nations then I might have a chance to get in there. It will be tough missing out in the future.”

That leaves just one more question.

“I can’t say. I would tell you if I could.”

He remains tight-lipped on where he’ll be playing next year.

“But it’s not Leinster,” he laughs.

Whoever it is, they’re lucky to have him.

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

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